Wilson Starts the Trek Out of the Abyss

One year he's up, the next year down. Gov. Pete Wilson's half-decade in Sacramento has been a chain of crests and craters. Now he's starting the long trek up from a deep chasm he tumbled into while running for President.

So far so good. In recent days, the governor has taken some initial, carefully planned steps essential for any comeback. A couple were little-noticed.

One was stepping into a vacuum of legislative leadership and putting pressure on vacillating Assembly Republicans to elect their own speaker. This was unprecedented. Historically, California governors have stayed clear of legislative leadership fights because lawmakers get huffy about any sign of outside interference.

But Wilson became very frustrated last year as he watched bumbling Republicans allow Democrats to elect the speaker, even though the GOP finally had won a one-vote House majority. And the governor realized that for him to climb back from the abyss--to regain public confidence and political prestige--he needed Republicans to control the Assembly so they could pass his legislative programs.

So he began making telephone calls to wavering assemblyman, especially Trice Harvey of Bakersfield and Brett Granlund of Yucaipa. The governor talked three times to Harvey, who was caught in the middle because he is running for Congress in a district where rebel Republican Brian Setencich of Fresno--the then-speaker--is immensely popular.

Wilson also called U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who angrily signaled Harvey that helping Democrats was a sorry way to get to Washington. So Harvey deserted Setencich. And then so did Granlund, deciding he couldn't bear the heat of being the lone Republican to cross his party and the governor.

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Wilson applied more pressure as the Legislature reconvened Jan. 3, hosting a GOP caucus in his office. In a passionate pep talk, he reminded lawmakers--many of them relatively inexperienced--that in every political caucus in the world, members choose a leader to unite behind when their legislative body is organized.

The speakership matters, he exhorted, citing the year 1971 as an example. Republicans had lost their brief majority and Democrats elected a speaker who inflicted automatic cost-of-living increases on Gov. Ronald Reagan's welfare reforms. Taxpayers still are suffering, Wilson asserted as heads nodded.

Within 24 hours, Republicans had united behind Assemblyman Curt Pringle of Garden Grove as the first true GOP speaker in a quarter-century.

Meanwhile, Wilson was taking a second deliberate step along the comeback trail. He was dribbling and leaking, mainly through newspapers, some of the juiciest pieces of his State of the State address and budget proposal that officially would not be unveiled until this week.

"We wanted to frame the debate on our terms," says Wilson's media strategist, Leslie Goodman.

In other words, better for Wilson himself to leak his proposals than for an enemy. An enemy who got wind of his ideas--on privatization of state services, on scuttling a teen anti-pregnancy program, on stigmatizing unwed births with an ad campaign--could do the leaking and spin the public against them before the governor made his pitch.

Also, Goodman points out, reporters neither would have the time nor the newspaper space--nor would TV news have the interest--to highlight all of Wilson's key proposals on the days of his speech delivery and budget release. So beforehand, the governor dribbled out juicy items on education: cancellation of scheduled fee increases at California colleges and an additional $300 million for public schools.

This also had a second political benefit: It cut Democrats off at the knees on one of their most popular issues.

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Then Wilson spun the spinners. A few hours before his Monday speech, he got on a telephone conference call with a dozen friendly "gurus," insiders who reporters regularly call for their expert views on political events.

Isn't your spin that "the governor's back?" one guru asked. No, he was corrected: That would imply the governor was gone while running for President; just say California's "back."

Another noted that Wilson's speech did not mention illegal immigration or affirmative action. Reporters would find this curious, he noted. Was the governor now trying to avoid divisive issues and be more conciliatory? No, the guru was told; he just can't cover everything in one speech.

To paraphrase old advice about con men: Don't try to spin a spinner.

Still, the spinning was a success. And 1996 is starting out like an "up year" for the governor.

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